03 August 2009

The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was a turning point in colonial reaction to British rule. By 1773 the tax issue was becoming obscure. Both parties were moving toward war.

American postage stamps have depicted the Boston Tea Party as a glorious act of defying British colonialism. Most people believe it was a protest against British taxes on tea, but this is not true. American tea merchants had been boycotting British tea for five years. Smuggled Dutch tea was used throughout the colonies. In response, the British government decided to remove the duties on East Indies tea when it arrived in Britain so it could be sold in America at a price cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea. In addition, a monopoly on this cheap tea was given to loyal British merchants in the colonies. American tea smugglers would be put out of business. The Crown's plan was based on the assumption that American consumers would not boycott low-priced English tea, but would purchase it rather than the higher-priced, smuggled Dutch product.

The implication of this to American merchants was frightening. If a monopoly could be granted for tea, it could be granted for other products as well. Economic sanctions of this kind could destroy American merchants. In protest, Bostonian merchants disguised themselves as Indians, boarded merchant ships loaded with tea, and threw the tea into the harbor. This was a wanton destruction of private property in an age when private property was held in great esteem. The first obligation of any government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens.

The Boston Tea Party is a sobering event that raises difficult legal and moral issues. It is anything but the cause célèbre American historians have made of it. This wanton destruction of property was not well received in the colonies. Massachusetts was a known seedbed of hotheads and warmongers. Franklin was shocked and acknowledged that full restitution should be paid at once to the owners of the tea. Most Americans believed this way, but unfortunately the majority of Americans were to feel the heel of the British boot. A number of "Intolerable Acts" were adopted by the Crown and started the Revolutionary War. British warships and troops literally invaded the colonies. Oppressive revenue agents, no matter how bad, were to look kindly compared to fleets of warships and battalions of redcoats in battle array. Cannon, muskets, and bayonets replaced Writs of Assistance, seizures, and tax levies.

The Americans won the war after six years because the British found the logistics of supporting troops three thousand miles away in a hostile country too burdensome. The American army was ill-fed and seldom paid. This ragged bunch returned home to bankrupt farms and state governments. The burdens of taxation under the British were a pittance compared to the financial obligations they now faced. The war had to be paid for and taxes, even with representation, were going to be enormous.

Loyalists suffered most. Their property was seized, and tarring and feathering was common. A long stream of refugees moved north to Canada. Benjamin Franklin made a personal visit to Canada to persuade loyalists to join the United States, but the scars of war were deep and would not heal. Franklin had spent the war in Europe. If he had been home and witnessed the suffering of the loyalists he would have known that the last thing these people wanted was further association with the Americans. There was bitterness on both sides, but no atrocities. The loyalists, for all their suffering, were fortunate. In other times and places they would have been slaughtered.

The Americans conducted the war through the Continental Congress, which had become a joke by the end of the war, especially in the press.

It could not even pay the back-pay of combat veterans or interest on the war debt, yet it went forward and adopted a number of costly programs to rebuild the nation. Naturally, nothing was accomplished without money, but money required taxes, which was one of the powers the Congress did not have.

The British learned from the war. In 1778, two years after the Revolution began, Parliament enacted a law, approved by King George III, which declared "that the King and Parliament of Great Britain will not impose any duty, tax, or assessment for the purpose of raising a revenue in any of the colonies, provinces or plantations." This wise enactment, unfortunately, came too late. In the next 150 years Parliament continued to assert absolute sovereignty over its colonies, but when taxation was to be levied, local assemblies, in one form or another, had to give their consent.